Behind the Glass Wall: Losing our Son to a Fr. Ephraim-Led Monastery (John & Jo Ann Pantanizopoulos)

*Questions for the Church
*How the Monastary shows Characteristics of a Cult
*What is healthy monasticism in the USA?
*Update (October 1999)
When Niko was five years old, we decided he needed swimming lessons. At that time, we thought the best gifts parents could give was to teach their children to love reading, to learn a musical instrument to lift their spirits and enrich their lives, and to learn how to swim. The first two gifts would fill their inner souls; staying afloat would save their lives. When the YMCA offered tadpole classes, we enrolled our sweet-natured blonde son. During the lesson, parents could watch from a large glass window in a room looking down on the Olympic-sized swimming pool. Sometimes I took a book to read, but didn’t get far because I was always looking to see if Niko had made it across the pool holding onto the styrofoam float.
After being able to kick across holding onto the float, the instructor made the children swim to the float-always holding the float just inches from their finger tips. The instructor had her hands full one day as she led two swimmers across the pool teasing them by placing the float just inches from their strokes. As I glanced up from my book, I suddenly saw Niko sink under the water as the instructor was lifting up her second charge. In panic, I leapt to my feet and banged on the window to alert someone to save my son from drowning. I couldn’t speak or scream; they couldn’t hear me down there. Would I have had time to run downstairs, find the door to the showers and the pool? Could I break the glass so my screams could be heard? With my voice frozen, I could only beat on the glass and watch him struggling under water until the instructor glanced up at my thumping and then over to Niko. She lifted his arm, his head rose above the water, and on he swam.
Niko is now 21 years old and a Greek Orthodox monk who goes by the name of Father Theologos. His father and I continue beating on the glass to save him, but no one has heard us. We feel our son, at a time in his life in which he was dealing with a transition from teen years to adulthood and with the sorrow of having an older sister diagnosed with a serious illness when he was 16, was unduly influenced to enter the monastic life since the age of 16. Our son is not alone. In the same year our son left, two other young people (ages 18 and 21) from our parish church in Knoxville, Tennessee entered a convent in Saxonburg, Pennsylvania and St. Anthony’s monastery in Florence, Arizona. Never were we included in assisting our son in making such a monumental decision. Niko told us in April and left in May 1996. We are concerned for many reasons that these monastic communities founded by Fr. Ephraim are part of a growing cult, a dark and confusing corner of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, a misdirected type of monasticism.
* Niko is the only son of four children, a brother to three sisters. He made us laugh with his impressions, his wry sense of humor, his sensitivity to others, and his kindness. When he first told us he was becoming a monk, I cried telling him that he would lose his wonderful sense of humor. “No, I won’t, Mama. I’ll be the funny monk!” But there is no place in Fr. Ephraim’s monasteries for humor or of seeing the funny quirks in life. Laughter is the result of the devil, Niko now tells us.
* Our son left home in May 1996 to stay a few weeks at a convent led by Fr. Carellas in Saxonburg, Pennsylvania before his trip to Arizona. We spoke on the phone several times and each time, Niko told us that the departure date had changed because he needed to be at the monastery at the same time as Ephraim. Each time he changed his departure date, he had to pay a $50 fine to the airlines. When I told him that the cost was adding up and asked him would he jump off a cliff if Fr. Ephraim asked him, he replied seriously, “Yes, of course I would!”
* After only one year and nine months as a novice, Niko was suddenly tonsured as a monk on April 30, 1998. Normally, three years from the time such young people enter the monastery first as novices, they take their vows and become monks. When we asked our son when he would know he was ready to take his vows to become a monk, he told us that Fr. Ephraim would tell him. When we responded with, “Won’t God tell you?” he told us that he is unworthy to speak to God; only Fr. Ephraim and the elders are worthy enough to have a dialogue with God.
* When we tried to contrast Niko’s isolation from the world to the life of Jesus who embraced the world by working with people in preaching, healing, and showing compassion, just as Mother Teresa has done, Niko responded with “that (Mother Teresa’s work) was just social work. Jesus had his calling; I have mine.”
* We encouraged Niko to consider becoming a priest instead of a monk and to use his talents working with people. We told him we would pay for his education at the Holy Cross Seminary in Brookline, Massachusetts, the only Greek Orthodox seminary in North America. He refused saying that Frs. Carellas and Ephraim said that the seminary was full of satan.
* After our interview with a reporter was published in The National Herald (Ethnikos Kyrix), a Greek language newspaper published in New York, we received many phone calls from distraught parents and friends of novices in Fr. Ephraim’s communities. We urged them to write letters and speak out, but they are fearful of going public with their family sorrows.
* Secrecy is paramount when a young man or woman leaves to enter a monastery or convent. Our son was told by Fr. Carellas to tell no one except his immediate family, and that only one month before he left our home. Niko left without telling his best friend, his aunts, uncles, grandmothers, even our current parish priest. The excuse was that if he told people, they might try to talk him out of becoming a monk, and then the devil would win.
* Fr. Ephraim has been known to have fought the devil who knocked on his door disguised as a goat. This goat attacked him, but the monk physically fought him off!
* Novice nuns have been known to wash this monk’s feet and drink the wash water because they and his followers think the man is a saint. He does nothing to discourage this sentiment.
* Fr. Ephraim has predicted that the world will end in 60 years.
* Fr. Ephraim was forced out of Canada because of the same recruiting tactics he is getting away with in the U.S.
* Divided families, divorces, and marital disharmony are the results of this monk’s teachings. We know that he has encouraged married couples to refrain from sexual intercourse and to live as brother and sister.
* Since entry into the monastery, our son has suffered from GERD, gastro-esophageal reflux disease. Before entry, Niko was never sick and had never suffered any stomach ailments. The novices are told that suffering is good and makes an individual a stronger Orthodox Christian. When he was in high school, he was the star dancer in our parish’s Greek Festival. The other dancers called him “Air Niko,” and he told us that he lived for Greek dancing. Now he keeps his eyes down rarely looking at us directly. He is a very thin, bowed 21 year-old young man.
* Following numerous letters (with responses few and far between) to bishops, the Archbishop, and the Patriarch, we finally were able to meet with Patriarch Bartholomew twice during his recent U.S. tour, once in October (1997) in Atlanta and once at the monastery in November (1997) in the presence of our son and several bishops. We asked that Niko be allowed to go home so we could have him checked by our family doctor. They all agreed it was acceptable; however, Niko later told us it was only a suggestion, not a command. Niko said that unless Ephraim told him to go, he would not leave the monastery. He would ignore the Patriarch’s suggestion.
* Niko does not ask about his family, his sisters, his cousins, his grandmothers. To do so, he says, is to ask about the world which he shuns. He refused to return home for his oldest sister’s wedding. He refused to listen to his 13 year-old sister’s song she wrote and sang for him on an audio tape, because music was from the devil. Christmases, Easters, and other holidays come and go each year without a phone call or a thank you note for the packages we send him. His letters to us have virtually stopped.
* A “spiritual elitism” surrounds the followers of Ephraim. Even in our parish church, a group of his followers defend him, saying “he has the power of discernment.” When I, Niko’s mother, stood up at our parish’s general assembly asking for some support in investigating this anomaly of losing three young people from our church to Fr. Ephraim’s monasticism, I was ridiculed and attacked by several of his ardent followers, told to mind my own business, and be glad my son was becoming a monk.
* St. Anthony’s monastery in Florence, Arizona is a brand new community in the desert, built of only the best materials. During our November 1997 visit that coincided with the Patriarch’s visit, we overheard one man say that it was indeed “more like a Hilton resort, than a monastery.” Our son told us that as soon as it is complete, it will become a convent, and the monks will move on to build yet another monastery, perhaps in New York. During our November visit to the monastery, we spoke with a member of the Patriarch’s entourage. When we told him why we were there, he said that he understood our concerns: “this spiritual dependence is totally unnecessary and is getting out of hand. Someone needs to get a hold of this situation and provide a solution to it.” The same member, who is also a priest, said that he and his wife were uncomfortable that their own son, who was with them that day, could come this close to such an unhealthy environment.
We ask these questions we hope someone will be able to answer:
* Who is funding Fr. Ephraim’s movements?
* What is the charity Fr. Ephraim’s monks perform?
* Under whose supervision do his activities fall?
* What are the names of the novices and monks in Fr. Ephraim’s monasteries and how do their families feel about their sons or daughters being in them?
* How many other families are suffering as we are?
* Does the Greek Orthodox Church have any procedures in place to assist individuals in looking at monasticism in a balanced way?
* What regulations, if any, govern these activities?
* Are any statistics available on the spread of Greek Orthodox monasticism in
the U.S.?
* What is “healthy” monasticism in the USA in contrast with Fr. Ephraim’s communities?
* Is the goal of the present Greek Orthodox Church leadership to divide families or to unite them by any possible means?
Note: We have asked the church these questions, but we have received no answers. We have been patient long enough in dealing with the Church’s hierarchy and speaking out publicly to get our son out of a psychologically abusive and spiritually dependent environment. We feel as if we have had a death in our family without a funeral. We miss our son! Although the church has gained one monk (our son), the remaining five members of our family have become estranged from the church.
Here are just a few of the characteristics of a cult, and they all match what we’ve seen and what we’ve read from our son’s letters:
** Control of the environment of their recruits.
In this monastery, recruits are physically separated from the society. Any books, movies or testimonies of ex-members of the group are to be avoided. We have asked our son to talk to a former nun; he has refused. Like cults, the novices and monks follow a rigid routine of sleep deprivation, limited diet, work, and controlled reading. Niko’s young sister wrote a song and recorded it on a tape. When we tried to play it for him during our visit with him, Niko said he was not allowed to hear music, even a simple song his sister wrote from her heart and recorded on an audio cassette.
** Demand for purity
In this monastery, the world is depicted as black and white with little room for making personal decisions based on a trained conscience. People and organizations are pictured as either good or evil, depending on their relationship to the ideology of the group. We asked our son if he knew that Mother Teresa had died. He told us she was a Catholic, a heretic, and her good works were just “social work.” When we reminded him that Jesus also did this type of “social work” with the people, Niko told us again that we were “talking idly.” He also said that “Jesus had his calling. I have mine.”
** Confession
In this monastery, serious sins are to be confessed immediately. Becoming a monk would be the result of regular confessions. From these confessions, Fr. Ephraim determines when Niko or any novice will be ready to become a monk. Information derived from the confession is used to make the novice feel powerless, more guilty, fearful and ultimately in need of the monastery and the leader’s goodness. This confession can be used to get the novice to re-write his or her personal history so as to reject the past life, making it seem illogical for the novice to want to return to his or her former life of family and friends.
** Sacred Science
In this monastery, the ideology is too “sacred” to call into question, and a reverence is demanded for the leadership. In the eyes of the monks and novices, Fr. Ephraim appears as the absolute truth with no contradictions. When we asked our son how he would know he was ready to become a monk, he told us that Fr. Ephraim would tell him. We asked, “Why doesn’t God tell you this?” He replied that he was not worthy to speak with God; only Fr. Ephraim and the elders are worthy to have a dialogue with God. Upon a visit to the convent in Saxonburg, PA, Fr. Ephraim told our 13-year old daughter and other children present that the world would end in 60 years. How convenient that Fr. Ephraim won’t be around in 60 years, and will not be confronted for his false prophecy!
* Mystical Manipulation
In this monastery, novices have come to believe that they are actually “choosing” this life. If outsiders, even his parents, say Niko has been brainwashed or tricked, he repeats “I have chosen this voluntarily.” This statement was made even in the presence of the Patriarch and other Bishops in November 1997 at the Monastery of St. Anthony. Novices and monks thrive on this myth of voluntarism, insisting time and again that no member is being held against his or her will. Recruits are told that God is ever-present in the workings of the organization. If a person leaves for any reason, he/she is told that accidents or ill-will may befall them and that is attributed always to God’s punishment on them. We have a former nun’s testimony on this.
* Loading the Language
In this monastery, there is frequent use of “thought-terminating cliches,” expressions or words that are designed to end the conversation or controversy. Our son, when asked a difficult question for him to answer, will end the conversation with the statement “This is idle talk.” When we asked our son why he came to the monastery, he said it was God’s will.
* Doctrine over Person
In this monastery, the person is only valuable insomuch as he/she conforms to the role models of the cult (or monastery). Personal history and experiences are ignored. During our visit or phone calls, Niko never asks about friends, relatives, his sisters, or our lives. Only the lives and experiences of monks are true for him. Accomplishments of former monks are repeated to these novices, although none of their fantastic (monastic) experiences can be verified. For example, Niko and his sister were  awestruck from the story told them at the convent in Saxonburg about Fr. Ephraim’s fight with Satan who appeared at his cell door in the form of a goat!
* Dispensing of Existence
In this monastery, they decide who has the right to exist and who does not. The leaders decide which books are accurate and which are biased. Families are cut off. Niko has not written to us since December 1998. In December 1997, he wrote us a note that he would not come home as advised by the Patriarch during our meeting with the Patriarch in November 1997. We wanted Niko to be cared for by our physician for his GERD (gastro-esophageal reflux disease). Our son said that only if Fr. Ephraim blesses his visit home would he have followed the Patriarch’s suggestion. We have written letters, called him on the phone, and visited him several times but always when we initiated the communication. All of these characteristics describe and document the similarities between monasteries administered by Fr. Ephraim and cults as they are known and defined by experts.In closing, we have come to the conclusion that people in the Church’s hierarchy will not do anything to save our son from the hands of such monastics. They appear to fall under no one’s jurisdiction or regulation. However, as soon as Fr. Ephraim’s type of monasticism is classified as a CULT in this country, we may then be able to save our son. Remember most cults are defined as a splinter of “first generation religions.” We hope this classification will be recognized by the Greek Orthodox clergy and laity as well as the media soon. Young people in transition and facing big decisions about life, such as college, career, and choice of spouse, etc., are easy targets for cult recruiters. Our main issues here are that our son was too young (only 18 years old when he entered the monastery), he was indoctrinated beginning at age 16 by our former parish priest who never involved us in the process, our son had no theological education and is presently not in good health. He never suffered from any illness before. The Greek Orthodox Church has no specific guidelines for proselytizing potential novices.We love our son very, very much, and we will continue to beat on the glass wall to save our son from drowning in a cult led by this monk.
**What is healthy monasticism in the USA?
In our opinion, monastics should have a good theological education, be of a mature age, and should make their choice after careful counseling with their priest and their family. Individuals that best fit the mold of monks should be the clergy. Such individuals have already made this choice to follow Christ’s footsteps and have the theological background needed. Monasteries should be the place for one to retreat from the world for a short period of time to meditate, pray, and discuss religion with others (i.e. in the form of a sabbatical from their everyday life) and then return to the world refreshed. Was this not Christ’s way? The expenditures for building such monasteries should be the responsibility of the Church (Patriarchate) and be run by the Church. Under no condition should a monastery be run by individuals such as the elder Ephraim. Such spiritual dependence at any level can only be cultic with disastrous results.

Geronda Ephraim as a young priest.
Geronda Ephraim as a young priest.
Fr. Demetrios Carellas and Saxonburg nun.
Fr. Demetrios Carellas and Saxonburg nun.

Update
Our son became a monk in April 1998, one year and nine months after entering the St. Anthony’s Monastery as a novice when he was 18 years old. At the age of 20, he became Pater Theologos. In his short note to us, he said even he was surprised when he discovered that he was to take his vows on that day. Since that note, we have received only one other short note to us. Then, in the summer of 1999, we accidentally read on the internet a Chicago Tribune article dated June 2, 1999, “Monks Turn Farm Into Monastery.” The reporter mentioned two monks: Frs. Akakios and Theologos. Wondering if our son could actually be in another monastery, we called the monastery and heard the voice on the answering machine. We knew it was our son Niko. We later sent him a birthday card and called again, leaving a message on the monastery answering machine. Still no letter, no phone call. Since then, we have discovered that Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Harvard, Illinois (northwest of Chicago) recently held a fund-raising banquet with about 600 attending paying $50 for a chicken dinner. A visitor told us that a tall thin young monk wearing glasses was there. He was not introduced and did not speak with any of the attendees. Our son, the one who told us so many times he lived to dance the Greek hasapiko and Kalamatiano is now the quiet monk isolating himself in obedience to the monk Ephraim.

https://web.archive.org/web/19991128190837/http://www.angelfire.com/bc/orthodoxsurvivors/cubehindglass.html

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Cult Mentality: a threat to individual responsibility in the church (Greta Larson)

Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia
Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia
Geronda Ephraim as a young monk, carving prosphora seals.
Geronda Ephraim as a young monk, carving prosphora seals.
Margaret Thaler Singer was a clinical psychologist and anti-cultist. Singer's main areas of research included schizophrenia, family therapy, brainwashing and coercive persuasion. In the 1960s she began to study the nature of cults and mind control and served on the board of the American Family Foundation and as an advisory board member for the Cult Awareness Network. She is the co-author of the book Cults in Our Midst.
Margaret Thaler Singer was a clinical psychologist and anti-cultist.

This article was first presented at the Fall, 2000, Conference of Orthodox Christian Laity in Dallas, Texas
”Protected by your coming, O Mother of God, the faithful people solemnly celebrate today. Gazing upon your pure ikon, they humbly say: ‘Watch over us with your noble protection and deliver us from all evil by asking your Son, Christ our God to save our souls.’” — Troparian of the feast of the Protection of the Theotokos (Pokrov), celebrated October 1/14

God asked Mary to be the mother of God, and she agreed. She made a personal choice; she was given individual responsibility. Individual responsibility is more than just the topic of this conference, an academic topic, or a political issue: it is an integral part of our Faith. My web site called Protection of the Theotokos confronts the crucial necessity of individual responsibility in the church. The site confronts the lack of responsibility by clergy and laity in handling the topic of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse. It also confronts the taking away of individual responsibility in the case of mind-control and cult activity within an Orthodox context.

The reason I became aware of both cult activity and sexual abuse in the church is because of my own personal experience in my parish. More than ten years ago it was discovered that my four year old sister and several of her friends were victims of sexual abuse by a man who claimed to be a convert to the Orthodox faith. Upon investigation it was discovered that the molester had been involved in a cult group (listed by several national cult awareness networks). Several other members in my parish were also converts from the same group and exhibited a continuing cult mentality as they had known the molester for fifteen years or more, yet didn’t tell my family, or any of the other families in the parish, let alone law enforcement officials, that this man was a violent criminal who was breaking his parole by attending our parish. It became apparent that certain converts in our parish still maintained an allegiance to their previous group. Later it was discovered that while they gave us the impression that they were converts from another orthodox jurisdiction, it turned out that they were from a group that is documented as a Gnostic mystery cult with pagan and occult rituals that had recently adopted orthodox rituals as a means of gaining credibility by mainstream society. Court records show that the leaders in the cult sent letters to court pleading leniency for the molester and another letter invited him to a monastery that housed children.

I first started Protection of the Theotokos web site as a way for myself and my family to reach out to others that had experienced abuse in the church first hand. We list articles on abuse, resources and a list of documented perpetrators. I had no idea the extent of the abuse problems; however I am now informed of cases in the Orthodox Church on a near weekly basis. Without much publicity, we have an average of 800 visits to the web site a month. I have received more than 2000 email messages in response to the site. Perpetrators are listed on my website that have conviction records, but I have a growing file of more than fifty other perpetrators NOT listed on my web site. I have received multiple reports on most of these fifty plus perpetrators, most of whom continue today as ”pastors” in Orthodox parishes. Needless to say, the list of victims is staggering.

This conference is honored by the presence of two courageous orthodox mothers — Catherine Metropoulos and Melanie Sakoda — who have stepped forward after seeing their children violated at church. They are both advocates for all children, not just their own. In both of their cases, they were told be silent and not speak about what happened to them, and in both cases their children could have been spared harm if others had spoken out. Yet, both Catherine and Melanie have stopped the cycle of silence and used their individual responsibility to the church to warn others of dangers in their communities.

Sexual abuse is such an explosive issue in the Orthodox Church that people aren’t even allowed to talk about it. My website, which publishes the facts (court documents, newspaper reprints, etc.), is so controversial that one member of the clergy (not present at this conference) attempted to have me removed from the program today. I also made reports to the FBI after receiving threatening messages from another source which indicated that my personal safety may be in jeopardy. It seems that talking about the crimes is actually worse than the crimes themselves. What I want to talk about today may be more difficult to confront than sexual abuse — and is sometimes a cause of sexual abuse — it is the confusing and controversial subject of what I call cult mentality and activity in the Orthodox Church.

What is a ”cult mentality” or ”cult?”

There are many different thoughts on the subject, but Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, a respected authority on cult activity, describes three main factors which are a charismatic leader, brainwashing and emotional, economic, sexual or other type of exploitation of members by the leaders. Cult activity can occur on a very large scale, in a small group situation, and even on a one-on-one basis. In Russia there has recently been some trouble with cult mentality in the Orthodox Church. An article from 1999 said the following: ”

Russian Orthodox priests have abused their authority over believers by intruding into their private lives and setting up, cult-like followings, the church’s Synod has complained. ‘The priests ban parishioners from marrying for love, force others to divorce their spouses because they were not married in church, and even compel some believers to enter monasteries or nunneries …. Instead of leading people to God, such priests are more interested in surrounding themselves with tightly knit groups of admirers and warring against rival parishes and traditions within the church.’”

Group mentality in Parishes and monasteries

These same kind of things are seen more and more in the U.S. as well. A cult mentality is seen in sexual abuse cases, for instance, when groups of people will still believe a priest is innocent after a guilty verdict or a guilty plea in court. Often it is the use of cult tactics that make people vulnerable to sexual and other types of abuse.

People have contacted me confused why a priest is suddenly making changes, they are being told what to do, everyone is supposed to follow the priest in every way, etc. Often changes are made in the parish council giving the priest more and more control. Parishioners are told not to question or talk about the changes, and if they do they are called ”unorthodox,” or ”ethnic/ nominal orthodox.” Sometimes people are derided and told that they don’t understand their own Faith. This makes them intimidated and embarrassed to speak out. One person wrote to me about their experience in their Greek Orthodox parish:

”Soon after the new priest arrived, he began to wear the monk attire: black cassock, black skoufos hat, and long beard. He began to refer to …..spiritual obedience a lot, performed daily liturgies, focused on the desert fathers in his sermons, and encouraged those women who favored spiritual obedience to him to wear scarves during liturgy and refrain from communion if they were menstruating. Some people began wearing (long) prayer ropes ….. wrapped around their wrists several times. Soon it was evident which group of parishioners were the super Orthodox and which group were moderates. … Small groups of the growing cadre of spiritually obedient parishioners went on retreats to the monastery, several states away. Their purpose was to gain a blessing from (the elder) …..They returned saying that (the elder) truly had the power of discernment. Individuals took personal questions for (the elder) seeking answers, such as, Should I buy this property? Should I have a baby? Should I marry this man/woman? Should I become a monk/nun? Throughout this time, a division within the parish became evident, especially at voting time for the Parish Council. The question was, Will this man/woman support the priest or remain a moderate?”

As shown in the letter I just read, group thinking can effect a regular parish. To me one of the most important points of that quote is that people weren’t encouraged to think for themselves, or to ask questions. They were forced to conform to an imposed standard of piety. It is important to remember that the Orthodox faith is full and multifaceted and doesn’t always fit one particular mold.

I have a personal anecdote. In my last parish there were two members who were chrismated into the parish who still lived and worked at a orthodox-style cult commune during the week, but came to our parish on the weekends. I thought this was a concern, both for the parish, and the people in the cult. However, when I asked the priest about it he accused me of gossiping. This is a common thing people are told to keep them from asserting their personal opinions. In fact Margaret Singer, one of the definitive experts on cult activity, says that:

”In many groups, there is a ‘no gossip’ or ‘no nattering’ rule that keeps people from expressing their doubts or misgivings about what is going on. This rule is usually rationalized by saying that gossip will tear apart the fabric of the group or destroy unity, when in reality the rule is a mechanism to keep members from communicating anything other than positive endorsements. Members are taught to report those who break the rule, a practice that also keeps members isolated from each other and increases dependence on the leadership.”

One person wrote to my web site about his abusive spiritual director, and I believe it shows how leaders can be deceptive:

”This man looked homely, dressed modestly, behaved in a gentle, self effacing manner, but had a highly charismatic personality that did not seem charismatic at all–art that concealed art. Whether aware of it or not, he had a splendid voice, and knew when to inflect his words so as to dramatically enhance the impact of what he said at key moments–the effect on me was almost hypnotic. Others were also enchanted. …… (M)y spiritual advisor ‘pulled’ people’s attention toward himself, rather than the God he supposedly honored, and ostensibly served. All in all, I knew something was very wrong, did not want to trust my gut instincts because I felt unable to bear the loneliness involved in ending the relationship — plus I had been going through some terrible crises and had gotten some genuinely valuable support from this man. The worst thing was that he had such a reputation for sanctity, that I and others felt afraid to even question his motives — he was protected by our own unconscious, wishful desire for evidence that God still cared enough to rise up saints in this sad world. I blamed myself and felt guilty all the time.”

Where is the new influence coming from?

In the last twenty years there has been an increased interest by mainstream society in the Orthodox church. An increasing percentage of clergy are converts. Besides the cult group I mentioned earlier that was in my own parish, there are many non-orthodox religions that have adopted orthodox icons, liturgics, theology and music into their traditions. Some of these groups are entranced by the beauty of the rituals, others are truly seeking the essence of the faith, others are using the traditions to cover up for a lack of legitimacy. Some of these groups have tried to join the church en masse — some have succeeded. Individual people interested in the Orthodox faith can be from varied backgrounds According to Don Lattin in an SF Chronicle (3/5/00):

”There has been a growing number of conversions to Orthodox Christianity … both by individuals and entire congregations. Some converts are traditionalists, such as Episcopalians upset over the ordination of women as priests and bishops. Others are evangelicals tired of the spiritual fads and the pop music of Pentecostalism. Some are serious students of the faith who read a little history and conclude that the Orthodox may have the closest structure to the early Christian churches. And there are all those spiritual seekers who dabble in Zen, Sufism or humanistic psychology and then stumble across some Orthodox monk with a long beard and a twinkle in his eye.”

My family converted from the Anglican church. We spent more than a year studying the Orthodox faith and attending the cycle of services. It was an important decision we made, each as individuals, to join the church. As converts my family was welcomed by long-time cradle Orthodox who taught us what it meant to be Orthodox, and we continue to learn more about Orthodoxy from them.

Orthodox people should be proud of the traditions they have maintained for generations and passed on to so many. Another convert is Bishop Kallistos whose book The Orthodox Church reminds us of these traditions. He points out that while the church is hierarchical, it is also ”charismatic and Pentecostal.” He goes on to say that ”the whole people of God are prophets and priests.” He also reminds us that in the Orthodox tradition, clergy and laity are equally responsible for guarding the faith. However, if lay people are no longer allowed to think for themselves, and told they must always obey their priest or bishop, this precious tradition is lost. As Bishop Isaiah of Denver recently reminded us, God wants loving sons and daughters, not slaves in his kingdom.

How is thought reform implemented? How are people made to be obedient?

The ”no gossiping” rule is one way, charismatic leadership is one way, but Margaret Singer also cites changes in diet, sleep and stress as ways of implementing thought reform or persuasion in a cult situation. While I am not condemning fasting or liturgical services, an increased cycle of services can result in sleep deprivation, and trance states and rules of fasting can cause protein deprivation, malnutrition and other health problems. Several of the letters I have gotten describe severe health problems resulting from fasting. One former nun told me of how she left her convent after she almost died when she was told to follow the convent’s dietary restrictions which were against doctor recommendations. Extreme fasting can cause other problems even in healthy people. It can make even the strongest of us too weak to use our good judgment, and more open to suggestion.

The use of spiritual fathers and elders and confessors in the orthodox church is also a way that cult activity can be imposed. In many books about cults, confession is listed as one of the techniques used to apply cult mentality and have people second guess their own judgment. This is in contrast to a healthy use of confession as a reaffirmation of God’s love for us. It can also be used as a way for a leader to impose guilt, which is another cult tactic. Margaret Singer tells how confession is used so that members reveal past and present behavior, contacts with others, and undesirable feelings, seemingly in order to unburden themselves and become free. However, whatever you reveal is subsequently used to further mold you and to make you feel close to the group and estranged from non members. … through the confession process and by instruction in the groups’ teachings, members learn that everything about their former lives, including friends, family, and nonmembers, is wrong and to be avoided.

Here is some of a testimony I received from one former monk who was one of many victims of sexual and spiritual abuse from the spiritual father of his monastery:

”Father carefully cultivates among his novices and monks the concept of absolute obedience to the ‘elder’ (staretz), i.e. himself. He does this by his own interpretations of the Scriptures and the writings of the Holy Fathers and by pointing to certain patristic statements found chiefly in the Ladder of Divine Ascent (e.g. 4:121, ”It is better to sin against God than against our father”). Novices and monks are led to believe that total obedience is a monk’s only path into the Kingdom of Heaven and that a monk can gain access to God only through his elder; they are led to believe that their belief in God and their belief in their ‘elder’ are one and the same; they are led to believe that if they disobey their ‘elder’ by any action or even thought, they have disobeyed and betrayed God and are therefore no better than atheists unless they repent, that is, obey.”

Who is vulnerable?

Any one of us can exhibit cult mentality: it happens whenever we allow our thoughts and actions to be dictated by someone else, or by outward appearances. For instance, it can occur in sexual abuse cases against the clergy, when people continue to believe a priest is innocent after a guilty verdict, or even after a guilty plea, simply because he is a priest. However, young people and converts are especially vulnerable, as are people going through a difficult time, such as a divorce, or the death of a loved one. Converts to Otrhodoxy are open to new ideas and willing to learn new things, but they may have a limited idea of what Orthodoxy really is. If they are told that to be Orthodox they must give blind obedience to the clergy, they might not know better.

Young people are similarly vulnerable. Not only are they usually expected to obey their elders, but they also may not yet have developed a mature understanding of Orthodoxy. There is a developing trend in this country of monastery schools, for children as young as five, or teenage novices. I personally feel that having children at monasteries is very wrong. We must certainly make sure that these children are being taught the importance of individual responsibility, not blind obedience.

Vulnerability to blind obedience is particularly problematic when whole groups, with their former leadership intact, are received into the church. If the group’s understanding of Orthodoxy is in error, if they do not understand that they need to exercise their individual responsibility to preserve our heritage, you have not one lay convert, whose misconceptions can be corrected by a priest or by other parishioners, but a serious threat to the Faith. These groups may go on to attract more converts, but only those who are looking for someone else to do their thinking for them.

This brings me to my next subject ….

Outside groups that may influence the Orthodox Church

In this country there are no rules or laws about who wears a clerical robe. There are no rules about who calls themselves Orthodox. Many groups in this country are self proclaimed orthodox. There is also a priest shortage. As a result of these factors, there are more and more priests converts from outside groups, often with no backgrounds or qualifications other than cult leadership positions to lead an Orthodox parish. More and more priests and bishops do not have a seminary education.

In one parish a convert Orthodox priest, formerly with a cult, pronounced excommunication on several devout long time Greek parish council members, simply for asking him to account for missing funds. The priest wrote to them saying:

”….(Y)ou have been suspended from the Sacraments. This difficult action has been taken because of your divisive actions [i.e.: asking about funds] and your refusal to follow the directions of your Priest and Bishop in resolving the problems within our parish. …. Suspension from the Sacraments means you are not a member in good standing, and thus may not continue as a member of the … Council, nor as its chairman …. Restoration to the sacraments is possible and in fact desirable upon ….: resignation from your position on the parish council, confession, and an expressed desire to accept and put on the spirit and practice that characterizes the …. diocese.”

Many of you come from parishes in which the parishioners are essentially like the parish council members described above, but where there is no influence from outside non-orthodox groups. Unfortunately in more and more communities in the Orthodox world, including my own home town of San Francisco, there are groups that appear orthodox, call themselves orthodox, but aren’t affiliated with any Orthodox jurisdictions. Among the controversial groups listed on my web site, four are not currently attached to any canonical Orthodox jurisdiction. There are many more groups that we are still investigating.

Some people may ask:

Why are cults a problem? Shouldn’t they just join the Orthodox Church?

On a list assembled by Margaret Singer, she lists one of the dangers of cult activity is that cults threaten legitimate institutions Many people would say since some groups are not really orthodox, then it doesn’t effect the ”real” church. However, many of these self-trained or cult-trained orthodox have been chrismated and ordained into the Orthodox Church, sometimes on the same weekend. One non-orthodox group, for instance, has made it its mission to ”save the orthodox from themselves,” and has attempted to send out members to convert to local established Orthodox parishes to establish connections within a parish. Many of these converts present themselves as long-time Orthodox and look to fill positions as Sunday school teachers and ordained deacons or readers. The sacraments are not meant to be a magical spell. Chrismation and ordination do not impart understanding of the Faith, or erase cult mentality.

Most of you know about the conflicts surrounding the widely publicized Antiochian Evangelical Orthodox Mission situation, which was considered a cult before its reception. Currently some Orthodox jurisdictions are attempting to take in other groups, just not so publicly. Recently I heard that one SCOBA jurisdiction is considering taking in the group that my sister’s molester had belonged to. When someone who works with me called the church headquarters to ask if this was true, the phone call was unceremoniously terminated. I then called myself and they hung up on me as well. We were not allowed to ask a simple question and receive a civil answer, much less express an opinion on the wisdom of this alleged reception.

Orthodox unity, you see, is more complicated than it seems.

Perhaps you think that these issues do not affect you or your parish, but take a look at the icon prints, periodicals and books sold in your parish book shop. Many pseudo orthodox groups sell orthodox wares as ways to make money and gain credibility.

Is that an ”orthodox bookstore” down the street from your parish, or does it just call itself Orthodox?

I believe Orthodoxy in America is at an important crossroads. The Orthodox Church is NOT a cult — but as lay people we each have a responsibility to make sure that it does not become one. The danger is there. The antidote is the example of Mary. God asked Mary to be the Theotokos, and understanding what was asked of her, she said yes. The Mother of God was a loving daughter, not a slave. We should all strive to be no less.

Greta and Cappy Larson of the Protection of the Theotokos.
Greta and Cappy Larson of the Protection of the Theotokos.
SNAP protestor Melanie Sakoda holds a sign by San Francisco Archdioceses
SNAP protestor Melanie Sakoda holds a sign by San Francisco Archdioceses
Melanie Sakoda, from the East Bay community of Moraga, protests at the San Joaquin County courthouse on Monday, Nov. 21, 2011. Sakoda is a volunteer with Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Melanie Sakoda, from the East Bay community of Moraga, protests at the San Joaquin County courthouse on Monday, Nov. 21, 2011. Sakoda is a volunteer with Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Nevins’ Final Demand Letter: Attachment 2b: Scott’s Experience at St. Anthony’s

Scott’s Experience at St. Anthony’s

Monks and nuns from the various monasteries under Geronda Ephraim during St. Anthony Monastery’s Feast Day (ca. 2006)
Monks and nuns from the various monasteries under Geronda Ephraim during St. Anthony Monastery’s Feast Day (ca. 2006)

Milieu Control: St. Anthony’s is located in a remote Arizona desert. Scott was physically isolated from the world during the years he spent at the monastery. His forays into the outside world appear to have been limited to doctor and emergency room visits. Letters and phone calls required permission, and permission was granted infrequently and stingily. Personal mail was screened. Phone conversations were monitored. A visit from his parents, who had traveled a great distance to see Scott, was strictly limited: two hours only. Even contact with other Orthodox was discouraged if that person was not an Ephraimite, as was any involvement with non-Ephraimite parishes. Scott’s contact with his family was further limited after the KVOA report, and after his father developed his website. When their control appeared to be slipping, the monastery began advancing personalized and bizarre conspiracies, such as the “murder plot,” to show Scott that the outside world was not safe.

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Mystical Manipulation: Scott’s communications with his family, infrequent as they were during his monastery years, were filled with “examples” of Archimandrite Ephraim’s supposed spiritual gifts.

• “The Elder” performs successful exorcisms, including that of Michael Fowler, even when other clergy are unsuccessful;
• “The Elder” can levitate;
• When “The Elder” meditates he glows so brightly that you will be temporarily blinded if you walk into the same room;
• “The Elder” can’ t visit a zoo because the animals will go wild;
• People who reject “The Elder’ s” teachings will drop dead;
• “The Elder” can ascend to heaven and talk to God;
• “The Elder” knows people’s thoughts;
• “The Elder’ s” breath smells like myrrh;
• “The Elder” “divined” to find water for the Arizona monastery; and
• When “The Elder” first came to America he was confronted by the devil and stabbed with Satan’s big pitchfork tail. Although he was wounded, the archimandrite defeated the devil. “The Elder” has a scar where the devil stabbed him with his tail.

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Demand for Purity: The quest for perfection had Scott eating and sleeping less and less to curb him his “passions.” The Nevins’ son was 6’3″ tall and weighed approximately 220 pounds when he entered the monastery. A year later his weight had dropped to 150 pounds and he was sleeping only 4 to 5 hours a night. During the 4 months after Scott returned from Greece, it is doubtful whether he managed to get any meaningful sleep at all, given the size and location of his assigned cell. Malnutrition and exhaustion clouded this young man’s formidable intellectual gifts.

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Confession: Confession was a regular part of Scott’s experience at St. Anthony’s. He wrote daily in a “Confession book.” However, this was not just ordinary confession, rather it was used to insure that Scott was thinking and acting in accord with the group. The fact that Scott believed that “The Elder” knew all of his thoughts insured that absolutely nothing would be withheld, and absolute control could be maintained.

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Sacred Science: The ultimate “Truth” preached at St. Anthony’s was that there was no salvation outside of absolute obedience to its leaders. To reinforce this, the monastery taught a heretical and Gnostic doctrine concerning life after death called the “Toll Houses.” Scott, along with many others, believed that absolute obedience to “The Elder” in this life was his only protection from the demons who would judge him in the hereafter.

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Loading the Language: In his infrequent communications with his family, Scott used certain catch phrases. While some are common to Orthodoxy, according to another former monastery insider, the phrases acquired a different meaning as taught by the leadership of St. Anthony’ s.

• “Obedience is a shield” which protects you from “demonic assaults.” (Ironically. Archimandrite Ephraim was not obedient to his own superiors, as when Scott was received into the Greek Church by baptism rather than Chrismation.);
• “The Elder” is a “doctor” for troubled souls, and the monastery a “spiritual hospital;”
• “Daily martyrdom;”
• “Love and chastisement always go hand in hand;”
• “If a man is not willing to give up his father and mother for My sake then he is not worthy of Me;” and
• “Sometimes it is better to suffer.”

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Doctrine over person: Scott was proud of his emaciated appearance and his new-found ability to survive with very little sleep. Common sense should have told him that lack of rest and malnourishment were not healthy, but he instead he accepted the group’s insistence that this was a positive and healing experience for him, despite the frequent emergency room visits which resulted.

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The Dispensing of Existence: Scott insisted that his parents speak with “The Elder” because “he can help.” When his parents instead opposed the Archimandrite, they become unworthy of interaction. Local Greek Orthodox churches, religious schools, and even Orthodox believers (such as Dr. Bradley Nassif) who did not accept the Ephraimite teachings also weren’t ” pure” enough and thus could be ignored.

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Scott was clearly under the influence of thought reform during his years at St. Anthony’s Monastery. While still believing that he was making his own decisions, he had unwittingly adopted the criteria for making those decisions given to him by the monastery’s leadership.

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The side-effects of leaving a group which engages in thought reform are severe. Their altered thought patterns need to be undone before they can be truly free to function normally in the outside world. Simply leaving the group, as Scott did, does not erase the marks that thought reform has left on the person. The rational structure of adult thinking and how he dealt with the world outside of the monastery as an adult had been damaged by thought reform that had undermined his emotional development during the critical adult emotional development time of his 20’s.

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The leadership at St. Anthony’s spent a great deal of time telling Scott that it was the end of the world, leading him to expect imminent death. “Daily martyrdom” was exalted and expected. Everyone outside of the monastery was viewed as an evil heretic. Irrational conspiracy theories abounded at the monastery. When Scott left the monastery, he rejected the depiction of the outside world as evil and began to regard the monastery as a threat to himself and others. Scott, a working college student and teenager before entering the monastery, was not suicidal. The man that St. Anthony’s unethically had thought reformed was quite capable of suicide. This person was very different from the Scott that his parents, hi s siblings, his relatives and his friends knew. The thought reform that Scott endured led directly to his decision to end his own life. Had Scott not been subjected to this methodology, or had it been addressed in time. he would still be alive today. Scott’s death was not an ” unfortunate circumstance.” It was entirely predictable and preventable.

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The predictable aspects of the emotional trauma’s Scott Nevins experienced were told to Metropolitan Gerasiamos by the Nevins’ and they spoke directly to him about preventing it. Their concerns were both rejected and ignored and they were told they could not be believed as parents, were questioned about Scott’s potentially being a homosexual as a reason why he wanted to become a monk, that forgiveness and a book on monasticism was what they needed to be focused on as the Metropolitans remedy. None of these ideas or remedies stopped the emotional trauma Scott Nevins experienced or the psychological damage done to him at St. Anthony’s Monastery.

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The Greek Orthodox Church of America discusses some of the problems associated with these kinds of thought reform groups as warning to not become involved in them. That information can be found at the Archdiocese website:

http://www.goarch.org/ourfaith/ourfaith7075

"With confidence, leave the purification of your soul in the hands of Elder Ephraim and you will feel like a birdie."
“With confidence, leave the purification of your soul in the hands of Elder Ephraim and you will feel like a birdie.”

Nevins’ Final Demand Letter: Attachment 2a: Eight Signs of Thought Reform

Scott Nevins did not become involved with St. Anthony’s because he was emotionally unstable, unintelligent, a traumatic event or trying to trying escape his home life. He was subtly manipulated into making decisions that he normally would not have made, without ever realizing that he was being carefully influenced by the monastery’s leadership. This is the essence of thought reform.

Eight Signs of Thought Reform

Robert Jay Lifton speaks at conference of Leo J. Ryan Education Foundation (formerly CULTinfo)
Robert Jay Lifton speaks at conference of Leo J. Ryan Education Foundation (formerly CULTinfo)

Thought reform has been well-researched and is not an unsubstantiated theory. In order to achieve the necessary degree of control over an individual, eight criteria are required to be present. The eight criteria, as outlined by Dr. Robert J. Lifton are:
1. Milieu Control: This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large.
2. Mystical Manipulation: There is manipulation of experiences that appear spontaneous but in fact were planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority or spiritual advancement or some special gift or talent that will then allow the leader to reinterpret events, scripture, and experiences as he or she wishes.
3. Demand for Purity: The world is viewed as black and whi te and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection. The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here.
4. Confession: Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group. There is no confidentiality; members’ “sins,” “attitudes,” and “faults” are discussed and exploited by the leaders.
5. Sacred Science: The group’s doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. Truth is not to be found outside the group. The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism.
6. Loading the Language: The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand. This jargon consists of thought-terminating cliches, which serve to alter members’ thought processes to conform to the group’s way of thinking.
7. Doctrine over person: Member’s personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.
8. Dispensing of existence: The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group’s ideology. If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the members. Thus, the outside world loses all credibility. In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also.2 (Lifton, 1989)

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NOTES

1 Lifton is the author of the seminal work, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism [PDF]- https://www.scribd.com/doc/206338802/Thought-Reform-and-the-Psychology-of-Totalism-Robert-Jay-Lifton

2 http://www.csj.org/studyindex/studymindctr/study_mindctr_lifton.htm

Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China is a non-fiction book by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton on the psychology of brainwashing and mind control.
Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China is a non-fiction book by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton on the psychology of brainwashing and mind control.